Monday 18 December 2017

The Power and the Glory

Galway always had the talent but they used to be a bit lightweight; now they have a team of giants who can also hurl, and they look ready to end their title drought

‘In the National League final, Galway demolished reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary with a performance that was power-driven, a formidable team of athletes who could hurl at the same time.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘In the National League final, Galway demolished reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary with a performance that was power-driven, a formidable team of athletes who could hurl at the same time.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

On the morning Galway were about to play Dublin in the Leinster semi-final in Tullamore six years ago, a newspaper article appeared that looked a safe bet to provoke a reaction. In a piece with journalist Vincent Hogan, Conor Hayes, Brendan Lynskey and Noel Lane offered a withering and paternalistic assessment of the Galway team. They had grown tired and frustrated waiting for an heir 23 years after Hayes last lifted the MacCarthy Cup. Judgement was delivered in harsh and unequivocal terms.

Galway stood accused of being soft. Afraid to put their hand up for a ball. Cowardly. Dublin were angered at the time, suspecting the three had picked their moment to speak out to induce a Galway response. But the underlying message still held water: that the Galway team did not have the inherent toughness needed to succeed. For years, many of the fine young hurlers rolling off Galway's treadmill were regarded as being too small. It is interesting to note that nearly all recent appraisals of Galway have focused on their physical prowess.

Now you speak of Cork's lightning-fast hurlers, whereas Galway, formerly awash with wristy types, has become the bastion of broad-shouldered implacability. They are now looking more like their forefathers of the late 1980s, the players who lamented that loss of physical force over much of the time in between. When Kevin Broderick saw the Kilkenny centre-back in his way in 2001 while on a solo run, he knew that going through him was not an option. So he improvised. He flicked the ball over his opponent's head without breaking stride or losing control of the ball, ending with one of the most memorable scores of modern times. The only problem being that Kevin knew you could only try something like that once. The next time you'd find yourself on the floor.

Galway now looks a cold house for small men. In the National League final they demolished reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary with a performance that was power-driven; they are a formidable team of athletes who can hurl at the same time. Could this be the missing piece of the jigsaw that will finally end their long wait for an All-Ireland this year?

"I think it is a huge advantage for Galway that they have so many big men but it is very rare to have so many that are such good movers and such good stickmen," states former Galway forward Alan Kerins, who played that day against Dublin in 2011, a match which Galway lost. "They blew away Tipp in the league final, and while not playing brilliantly against Offaly and Wexford, they won well."

He thinks of his brother, Mark, who starred when Clarinbridge won the All-Ireland club title in 2011, as an example of someone with the kind of physicality and reach that Galway needed but who was allowed to drift off the panel. Gearoid McInerney might have fallen by the wayside too in the past. "He could have been discarded but they have seen something in him and turned him into a centre-back. Our defence over the last 10 to 20 years was always a problem, and Daithí Burke was a great find. Adrian Tuohy is normally a midfielder, but he has been a very aggressive corner-back. Aidan Harte has really come on as well in terms of consistency. He has found a role and they are filling these positions that had given them trouble previously with really solid, physical men."

In the '80s Galway's Maginot Line was their half-back axis with the commanding Tony Keady at the core, a man who had incredible physical presence but an abundance of hurling as well. McInerney, son of Keady's half-back partner Gerry, is not in that category yet, and may never be. He is not the fastest, nor the tidiest hurler, but he has developed into a more authoritative figure this year and has the potential to nail down the position for a few years to come.

"I was on the panel with him for two years," says Damien Hayes. "His attitude is top class. He is a lovely fella, type of guy you can go to and say, 'I need you to improve in these two aspects' and he'll go and get it done. He has done a job. They played him centre-forward two years ago in the league and he has played wing-back and is now centre-back. One thing I like is he doesn't try to strike the ball 100 yards. He will use 10 or 15 yards stick-passes or a handpass to lay off the ball. He is playing to his strengths."

When Iarla Tannian surrendered his tenure at centre-back, Galway used Daithí Burke in the All-Ireland final two years ago. They again failed to deliver, fading badly in the second half. Defensively they were still moving the pieces around. Last year in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, Padraic Mannion played centre-back, with Burke at full-back and McInerney at left wing. Burke managed to keep Seamus Callanan scoreless from play, a year after he had scored three goals against Galway at the same stage of the competition.

And Galway's attacking six are all men of stature. "The noticeable trend from the last couple of years," says Hayes, whose own game was built on speed and a lower centre of gravity, "is that Galway are looking for a different type of forward. Probably the last two small forwards were myself and Kevin Broderick. We were two hardy lads, we were fast and nippy and able to win our own ball. But now I find unless you are in the region of six feet plus. . . those type of players are being chosen before the smaller ones. The Galway forwards are very strong and bulky. They look more like a Kilkenny forward line; they have worked off that template."

Kilkenny's influence can't be disregarded or downplayed. Teams founded on their forwards' ability to win primary possession, and with the success they had, were bound to influence tastes and fashions. But strength and conditioning is more part of a player in preparation than ever before. One differential in Galway's preparations this year has been the input of their fitness coach, Lukasz Kirszenstein, who worked with the Tipperary hurlers in the seasons immediately preceding his arrival. He was well known to Micheál Donoghue from his time with the Tipperary backroom team before taking over the Galway management job.

Following the furore over Anthony Cunningham's departure and related delays in appointing a successor, last season's pre-season training was affected. This year they had a clearer run, with the new fitness man credited with bringing a fresh approach and a strong reputation for results. Much of the groundwork, however, had been done in the field over the years before and some of Galway's players are now in peak physical shape after sustained conditioning work. Kirszenstein is seen as having added polish and refinement.

Hayes has heard glowing reports of his impact in Tipp and since coming to Galway, and the signs are there to see. "Take Conor Whelan," says Hayes. "He probably would have been one of the lightest of them, but Whelan in the last two years and particularly over the winter has really bulked up. You see the difference in his quads and legs. For Galway to compete in Leinster alone they needed to compete in an aerial battle. You could have a half-forward line now of Joe Cooney, Joe Canning and Niall Burke, all big men. Plus they are all good hurlers. They are able to take a belt."

Hayes is asked if he thinks he would find a place in that environment. "I think the likes of myself and Kevin Broderick . . . there probably wouldn't be places for us. We would have slotted in perfectly to the Cork forward line. I don't think there is any Galway forward under six foot."

Mattie Murphy has seen numerous county minors graduate from his own years in charge of teams at the grade. "I think of Conor Whelan when he was minor for two years, and a smallish fella, and then standing beside him the other day, and all of a sudden . . . he was always strong and wiry, but he has added three or four inches in height and filled out a huge amount. That is something the strength and conditioning has brought in. We have age on our side. A lot of the players now who are 26, 27, 28, 29 - five, six or seven years into that kind of development, it's showing.

"They are also at the stage that they have got that bit more cynical than they used to be. I would not see them lying down to anybody. They are well capable of looking after themselves. They might even enjoy a bit of that kind of confrontation. You can't look at any of the six forwards and say they will be intimidated."

As recently as last year, after the Leinster final defeat by Kilkenny, Galway were still shipping criticism for being too malleable when the heat came on. While impressive league champions now, and All-Ireland favourites, they still have to win the MacCarthy Cup to rid the doubts about their worthiness for high office. They remain a team with potential, if one with what looks like a new physical or athletic dimension.

Some of this is natural evolution, says Murphy. "The last generation has been markedly bigger than the generation before it. I am looking at young fellas now and there's few five-eight, five-nine, even at under 15 and 16 level. Whether it is diet or what. Maybe they are benefiting from the growth hormones the cattle may have passed on to us, I don't know."

Size matters, then. But hurling is still a game that was able to accommodate Tommy Walsh, no Mr Atlas, in one of the toughest teams of the last 50 years. He didn't shirk the hard stuff, indeed he revelled in it. And Cork are taking a 'different approach, with the players now at their disposal to hurl a different way, relying on touch, on pure hurling.

"What you are really looking at now," says Murphy, "for the last number of years we have had these big fellas, but we were not winning primary possession with them. Now we have gone and worked on that. Looked for fellas who are able to win the primary possession. Our half-back line would have put the hurley to the ball three or four years ago; now their first option is to catch. Obviously they have done an awful lot of work on fielding on the training pitch. Colm Callanan is very comfortable dropping a ball on any of the three in the half-forward line, at very worst it is breaking ball, 70 per cent of the time we win primary possession. We are no longer putting up the hurley to wave at it."

Alan Kerins, as a forward himself, sees more liberated movement and agility in some forwards like Joe Cooney, which may be the result of fitness coaching and altering long-ingrained movement patterns. The fact that the new fitness coach isn't from a GAA background helps, according to another working in the same field. "He is developing the whole athlete, he would be looking at the bigger picture. He is not poisoned by the GAA culture of feeling sorry for yourself because you are not professional. That is a massive part of it. There are also false perceptions that if Galway lose a game in the last five minutes it's down to fitness, whereas it could be psychological.

"The conditioning takes a few years to have an impact. Lukasz has done a great job but timed his arrival perfectly in my opinion."

Even more perfectly if they win today and the day after that.

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